No longer Turkish Delight


President Erdogan sometime ago (in)famously (and approvingly) compared the constitutional “reforms” he desired to those of Hitler’s circa 1933-4. Thanks to a small majority of Turkish voters, he now has the mandate to roll back the secular Kemalist state even further in his pursuit of more power and more Islamism.

Erodgan has claimed the victory in the referendum as “clear” but at 51.36% to 48.64% it’s far from the resounding endorsement from his people that he would have wanted. What the result shows is that the country is almost evenly split between people who want more and those who want less of what Erdogan offers: presidency versus parliament, Islamism versus secularism, Ankara versus Istanbul. But Erdogan will take the result he got and run with it; as he has once (again in)famously said, democracy is like a train: you get off when you reached your destination. The Orient Express has taken Erogan where he wanted.

Erdogan is the anti-Ataturk of Turkish politics, and his long-term project has been to dismantle the modern Turkey that Mustafa Kemal started creating almost a hundred years ago. Kemal, who was born in Thessaloniki, possibly of Slavic origin, knew that to survive and thrive in the 20th century, Turkey would need to cease to be an empire and become a nation state. He was an admirer of the West and a great Westerniser; rationalist and secularist (and probably atheist) who thought that Turkey needs less adventurism and more modernisation, less Islam and more science, less tradition and more openness, less Orient and more Occident – a Turkey that socially, culturally, economically looks to the future opportunities and not the past glories, and so to Europe and not Asia. Of all the interwar dictators and strong men of Europe, Mustafa Kemal was the least bloody and arguably the most weighty and far-sighted for his country. In that, he was the anti-Erdogan – for him dictatorship was like a train, and you got off when you reached your destination: a modern secular country with institutions strong enough and population educated enough to handle Western-style democracy.

It is ironic that Kemal’s initial power base was central Anatolia (he was the one who made the sleepy town of Ankara into the new national capital). It took years for him to bludgeon and charm the cosmopolitan Istanbul, the seat of the sultanate and of the caliphate, the centre of the empire, to embrace his vision. If Kemal and his successors have failed, it is in finishing to reshape Anatolia in their image. When it finally did, Istanbul quickly adopted the gospel of Kemalism; but the central Turkey remained more rural, poor, conservative, Islamic than the rest of the country. Now it’s having its revenge on the wealthy, secular, open Istanbul, and its name is Erdogan.

It is also ironic that the centralising, semi-dictatorial powers that Erdogan seeks are not dissimilar to the ones that Kemal once used to wield. The difference is about 90 years and the end purpose. Therefore it’s all the difference.

In some ways, the social and demographic change that Turkey has been experiencing over the past few decades can be seen as a microcosm of the entire European continent, and a worrying portent for the future. Istanbul is more like “us”, but Anatolia, as all conservative and religious societies do, produces more children, which it then exports, not being able to support them at home. These children have been moving to Istanbul and moving overseas in search of more work and better opportunities. The result is that Istanbul, once the bastion of Kemalism, is now as divided as the country itself, and that between 65 and 75┬áper cent of Turks in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria have voted in support of Erdogan. These are the gastarbeiters (guest workers) from the rural Turkey and their children who might have grown up in the West but retained their parents views. By contrast, the European and the Mediterranean Turkey voted 60-70 per cent against Erdogan’s constitutional changes.

The winter is coming in Turkey this spring, and both its neighbours as well as Europe will feel the chill.